Organized Home

Organized Pantry: A Beginner's Guide to Pantry Pride

Posted by Cynthia Ewer on November 18, 2014

A working pantry? It's the secret weapon of a well-organized kitchen.

A planned reserve of foodstuffs and sundries used in the home, a pantry saves time, money and stress in the kitchen.

Tap the pantry for unexpected meals and reduce trips to the supermarket.

Stock it with frugal finds to lower grocery costs.

Set aside a supply of food and sundries for a rainy day and protect your family against weather emergencies or financial dislocation.

Properly managed, the pantry is an integral part of an organized home. Polish your pantry pride with our best hints and tips.

A Pantry's Not A Place: It's An Attitude

"Oh, I'd love to have a pantry," writes a reader, "but my house doesn't have one!" Sure it does! If there's so much as a spare roll of toilet paper tucked underneath a sink, the household boasts a pantry.

Don't confuse storage space with the reality of the pantry principle. Certainly, it's helpful to have designated cabinet space for pantry goods--but that's not the pantry. Think of the pantry as a reservoir of consumable goods which may be stored in any area of the home.

Tiny urban apartment or spacious rural farmhouse, all homes can include a pantry. That some houses may or may not feature a specific storage area labeled "pantry" is beside the point. A pantry's not a place, it's an attitude!

Eyes On The Goal

What's the goal of establishing and maintaining a pantry? It's two-fold: household convenience and protection against unexpected events. A well-planned pantry means that the household will never run out of commonly used products such as toilet paper.

More important, a pantry is a reserve against hard times. Whether it's job loss, illness, or natural disaster, a pantry ensures that the family will continue to be fed, clean, and comfortable in the face of adversity.

A beginner's pantry focuses on convenience and contains back-up products for each storable item used in the home. The standard is simple: for each open bag, box or carton in the household, the pantry contains a second, back-up product, toothbrushes to tortellini. A good first goal: a three-day supply of food and hygiene supplies adequate to support your family plus one additional person.

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More robust pantries serve additional goals. A mid-range pantry can feed a family for a period of two weeks to a month in case of emergency.

This pantry includes substitutes for fresh foods, such as powdered milk, dried fruits and vegetables, and protein products. A mid-range pantry offers convenience and basic protection.

The most comprehensive home pantries are designed to meet long-term food storage needs. For instance, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) are taught to maintain a one-year supply of food and clothing for their families.

To do so, these premier pantry managers stock versatile foodstuffs with long shelf life, such as whole wheat berries, together with a variety of preserved and dried foods. LDS home managers learn pantry-specific cooking techniques to enhance nutrition and appeal of long-keeping foods.

Inside the Well-Stocked Pantry

Traditional home organization advice often specifies long lists of "recommended pantry items", idea being that you buy them and voila! you've got pantry.

Eighteen months later, you're hauling dusty cans of apricot halves to the Food Bank and wondering what ever possessed you to purchase them in the first place.

Reality check! Each family's pantry will vary according to their own tastes, needs and standard of living. Storage space and financial constraints also affect pantry contents.

For instance, single-income households with young children will build pantries replete with cold cereal, formula, disposable diapers and child-friendly snack foods--all purchased on sale with coupons. Empty-nesters with an active social life and his-and-hers diets will lean toward pickled asparagus, cocktail crackers and tiny jars of caviar for pick-up appetizers and hostess gifts.

Dedicated home bakers include specialty flours, gluten, and dried buttermilk powder in their pantries, while non-cooks rely heavily on microwave entrees and freezer pizza. And just about every family can stockpile basics for kitchen and bath: toilet paper, toothpaste, laundry and dishwasher detergent, disposable diapers and feminine hygiene products, paper napkins and food storage bags.

Where's the best place to discover your family's pantry preferences? A grocery list!

If you buy it, use it, and it can be stored, it's a pantry candidate. Building a pantry from the grocery list is also a powerful antidote to Pantry Mania: the indiscriminate purchase of case lots of canned turkey chili or house-brand soups that no one in the household will eat. Hello, Food Bank!

An expansive view of the pantry principle encompasses more than the traditional dry storage of canned foods and baking staples. Manage your pantry to include freezer storage and a limited amount of refrigerator real estate. Carrots, potatoes, oranges and apples enter the pantry zone when bought on sale and tucked into corners of the vegetable bin, while freezer convenience entrees qualify, too.

Bottom line: build a pantry to suit your family. Whether it's Chef Boy-ar-dee brand ravioli or Wolfgang Puck's upscale line of condensed soups, feature your family's favorites on the pantry shelves.

Organization and Inventory Tips

To work the pantry principle, you've gotta get organized! Maximum pantry power requires that you know what you have, how long it will keep, and how to store it safely. Good organization and inventory techniques will keep your pantry cycling smoothly.

Beginning pantries are relatively simple, and don't require complex organization systems. Create them by buying twice as many of each item as required for weekly use, then storing the extras. Use the last smidge of mayo making today's tuna salad? Retrieve the back-up jar from the pantry, and add "mayo" to the week's shopping list to replace the pantry jar.

Often, the beginner's pantry can be stored side-by-side with opened or in-use items. For example, stack the open box of detergent on top of the pantry box or line up cans of chicken noodle soup front to back on the canned goods shelf. Remember to rotate! Add newly-purchased items to the back of the stack or row; use the front items first.

Even for beginners, a dedicated pantry area can be a big help. Set aside a cabinet or shelf to hold pantry items. Organize them by category, stacking cans and boxes. Flat-bottomed plastic baskets support and contain bags of dried beans, rice, or pasta.

One exception to the "store by category" rule: complete pantry meals. On a section of pantry shelf, assemble all the makings for three to five pantry meals: a family-sized can of clam chowder, extra can of chopped clams, and the box of oyster crackers shelved together make it easy to replace these items after use. Check your "pantry meals" area before shopping day. Empty spaces will remind you to stock up on the clam chowder as needed.

More comprehensive pantries call for a more organized approach. Larger pantries require more storage space, often sited away from the kitchen. In this situation, a written pantry inventory can remind forgetful cooks of the existence and location of pantry items.

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To inventory the pantry, use a clipboard, steno pad, laptop computer or a free printable pantry inventory form from our Household Notebook Forms Library. Record pantry contents, amount and location for easy reference.

Before grocery shopping, check the pantry; will you need to replace any items that have been used? Include them on the weekly shopping list.

Larger pantries may be stored in multiple locations around the house, so pay attention to food storage guidelines as you store. A cool, dry basement room is a good storage environment for root vegetables, apples, or baking staples; canned goods and dried beans can be safely stored in areas with greater temperature variation.

Long-term storage pantries require a thorough approach to selection, storage, maintenance and use of stored foods. Families storing a year's supply of food and water must pay close attention to storage guidelines, safe packaging, and integration of pantry supplies into the daily diet.

Building A Pantry On A Budget

Investing in the pantry principle pays off in savings of time and money, but it does involve an up-front cost. Even a beginner's pantry--a back-up product for each item used in the home, plus ingredients for three to five pantry meals--represents a significant financial outlay.

Try these tips to spread the load:

  • "Tithe" for the pantry: set aside a regular percentage of each week's grocery budget for pantry-building. Even a few dollars a week will start the process of stocking and maintaining pantry reserves.
  • Buy on sale: take advantage of supermarket loss leaders to stock up. Supermarkets routinely offer tuna, tomato sauce, canned soup and canned beans at drop-dead prices to get shoppers in the door. If it's a pantry candidate and it's on sale, buy multiples!
  • Buy in bulk: bulk-buying for the pantry really pays off. Using the pantry "tithe", buy the 25-pound sack of bread flour for $3.89 at the warehouse store, rather than spend $1.39 for the supermarket's five-pound bag. You'll save and stock up at the same time!
Storage tips for small spaces

Even beginner's pantries may have a hard time finding a home in small houses or apartments. Try these storage ideas to tuck away a pantry in the tiniest home:

  • Break the mold: look beyond the kitchen to store pantry items in a small home. Provided that temperature and moisture are not issues, any room in the house is a candidate for pantry storage. Who says cans can't live in the coat closet?
  • Disguise it: integrate pantry goods into the home. For example, stack two large bulk-food storage containers and top with a plywood circle and round tablecloth. Who can tell this attractive end table is really storage space for 50 pounds of flour?
  • Look high and low: make use of storage space under or over furniture. Fill shallow under-bed storage boxes with canned food, labels up, and push them beneath the bed. Similarly, cover cardboard records boxes with gift wrap or fabric, fill them with bags of pasta, beans and rice, and stash them away on top of tall bookcases.
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Declutter 101: How To Cut Clutter At Home

Posted by Cynthia Ewer on November 13, 2014

Here at OrganizedHome.Com, we hear the cry every week: "Help! I'm drowning in clutter and don't know where to begin!"

Whether it's due to poor habits, a packrat spouse, or an advanced case of affluenza, too many home managers struggle under the burden of household clutter.

Clutter can clog the smooth workings of any home, imposing heavy costs on the household.

Each day, time is lost searching for missing keys, phones or permission slips. A cluttered desk plays Hide The Credit Card Statement, yielding up the bill only after late fees are invoked. Belongings lost to clutter must be replaced, with the original surfacing just as soon as the replacement enters the house. Gotcha!

Time to declutter! But when you're peering over piles, mounds and stacks of stuff, it's hard to know where to begin and what to do.

Our complete guide to cutting clutter at home is here to show you where to start, share basic methods to cut clutter, and outline tips to keep clutter from coming back.

Ready? Let's cut the clutter in your organized home!

Halloween Candy Overload? Repurpose, Recycle and Reduce the Trick-or-Treat Haul!

Posted by Cynthia Ewer on October 30, 2014

Halloween night is coming ... and so is the morning of November 1st! For parents, that's the time when the excitement of Trick-or-Treat night gives way to post-Halloween reality: what to do with all that Halloween candy?

Whether they're worried about tooth decay and nutrition, or simply want to avoid the stress of a week of candy-fueled behavior from the little ones, smart parents put strategies in place to handle the Trick-or-Treat haul.

Check out these ideas to repurpose, recycle and reduce the amount of Halloween candy in your organized home from sister site Organized Christmas:

Halloween Candy Overload? Repurpose, Recycle and Reduce the Trick-or-Treat Haul!

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Fall Back: Home Preparedness Checklist for Time Change Sunday

Posted by Cynthia Ewer on October 28, 2014

Autumn's here and it's time to Fall Back: Time Change Sunday is on the way!

On the first Sunday in November, we come to the end of Daylight Saving Time in most of the United States. With an extra hour in the day--and winter on the way--it's a good time for a seasonal home preparedness checklist!

As you circle the house, resetting clocks to Standard Time, make time for this short safety checklist. It'll see you into the winter from a safe--and organized--home:

  • Change the clocks, change the batteries. Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors save lives ... if they're powered on by a fresh battery. Safety experts recommend replacing smoke and carbon monoxide detector batteries twice a year--so celebrate Time Change Sunday with fresh batteries all around.

    Energy savings hint: don't toss the replaced batteries just yet. While they're likely not fully charged, replaced batteries can still do duty in children's toys, media players or electronic devices. Squeeze the last drop of power out of them before you recycle!

  • Replace light bulbs. Long dark winter evenings call for a little illumination! Since you'll have stepladders out to reach smoke detectors and clocks on Time Change Sunday, double up on safety (and energy savings) by checking for light bulbs and fixtures.

    Consider replacing conventional bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent or LCD bulbs. The U.S. Environmental Protection estimates that replacing standard bulbs with energy-efficient ones saves over $30 in electricity costs over their lifetime.

  • Prepare for cold and flu season. Cold weather is here and so are colds and the flu; will your household be prepared if illness strikes?

    Check the medicine cabinet, and assess stocks of over-the-counter medications. Do you have sufficient non-aspirin fever reducers, cough syrup, and decongestants needed to fight colds or flu? Has the thermometer gone missing? Be sure Dr. Mom is ready at the first sign of seasonal illness!

    In the pantry, a stockpile of canned soup and lemon-lime soda can ease cold symptoms and fight off dehydration--and don't forget to stock up on disposable tissues for all those coughs and sneezes!

  • Make or review your family emergency plan. If an emergency strikes, will your family know what to do?

    Review your family's emergency plan, or create one for the first time. Update phone numbers, addresses and contact information, and post an Emergency Information Page near the phone.

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Learn more about what your family needs to know in case of disaster or emergency:

Family Emergency Preparedness from RedCross.org

Are You Ready? A Guide For Citizen Preparedness from FEMA.org

This free printable from Ready.gov makes it easy to develop a plan in case of emergencies:

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Fall Cleaning Chore Checklist

Posted by Cynthia Ewer on September 22, 2014

It's Autumn.

Pumpkins glow in golden fields. Shorter days, crisp mornings signal winter's approach.

Can the holidays be far behind?

Use Autumn's brisk and breezy days to conquer deep-cleaning chores for a clean and comfortable winter home, and wrap up summer's outdoor areas.

Our Fall Cleaning Chore Checklist will help you prepare home and hearth for the coming of winter:

Outside The House

Summer's come and gone--and left its mark on outside the house.

Time to come inside for winter! Outside the house tend to these autumn chores:

  • Clean and store patio furniture, umbrellas, children's summer toys.
  • Touch up paint on trim, railings and decks. Use a wire brush to remove flaking paint; prime bare wood first.
  • Check caulk around windows and doors. Follow manufacturer's recommendations to re-caulk if needed.
  • Inspect external doors and garage doors. Do they close tightly? Install weather-stripping, door thresholds if needed.
  • Wash exterior windows.
  • Drain and store garden hoses. Install insulating covers on exterior spigots. In hard-freeze areas, have sprinkler systems blown free of water.
  • Check gutters and downspouts. Clear of debris if necessary. In cold-weather areas, consider installing heating cable to prevent ice dams.
  • Have chimneys and flues inspected and cleaned if necessary.
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Autumn's the time for "spring cleaning".

Deep clean now to take advantage of good weather, and face the coming of winter and the approaching holidays with a clean and comfortable home.

To learn how to clean efficiently, check out the Clean House Guide for more information on cleaning fast and furious.

  • Focus on public rooms: living room, family room, entryway, guest bath.
  • Clean from top to bottom. Vacuum drapes and window treatments. Clean window sills and window wells. Vacuum baseboards andcorners.
  • Vacuum upholstered furniture, or have professionally cleaned if needed. Move furniture and vacuum beneath and behind it.
  • Wash interior windows.
  • Turn mattresses front-to-back and end-to-end to equalize wear.
  • Launder or clean all bedding: mattress pads, pillows, duvets, blankets, comforters. Tuck the family into a warm and cozy winter bed.
  • Schedule professional carpet cleaning early this month! Warm October afternoons speed carpet drying. Carpet cleaning firms get busy by the end of October, so schedule now for best service.
  • Prepare the kitchen for holiday cooking. Clean and organized kitchen cabinets, paying particular attention to baking supplies, pans and equipment.
  • Clear kitchen counters of all appliances not used within the last week. Clear counters look cleaner--and provide more room for holiday cooking.
  • Pull refrigerator away from the wall, and vacuum the condenser coils. For bottom-mounted coils, use a long, narrow brush to clean coils of dust and debris.
  • Wash light-diffusing bowls from light fixtures.
  • Inspect each appliance. Does it need supplies? Stock up on softener salt now, and avoid staggering over icy sidewalks with heavy bags.
  • Check and empty the central vacuum's collection area.
  • Clean electronic air cleaner elements monthly for most efficient operation. Wash them in an empty dishwasher (consult manual for specific product recommendations).
  • Clean or replace humidifier elements before the heating season begins.
  • Inspect washer hoses for bulges, cracks or splits. Replace them every other year.
  • Check dryer exhaust tube and vent for built-up lint, debris or birds' nests! Make sure the exterior vent door closes tightly when not in use.
  • Schedule fall furnace inspections now. Don't wait for the first cold night!
  • Buy a winter's supply of furnace filters. Change filters monthly for maximum energy savings and indoor comfort. When the right filter is on hand, it's an easy job!
  • Drain sediment from hot water heaters.
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My Child, My Home, My Country: A Marine Mom Speaks

Posted by Cynthia Ewer on September 11, 2014

The following essay, written shortly after the collapse of the Twin Towers, has been this writer's most-read piece of work.

Written on September 14, 2001, it was the cry of my heart as the mother of a United States Marine, a son who had been called to alert in response to the attacks on our country.

Each year on September 11, I re-read this essay. And remember ...

I wasn't terribly happy the day my 17-year-old son told me that he wanted to join the United States Marine Corps.

Ryan was a boy from a professional family with many educational options--and he wanted to join the armed forces?

I signed the forms permitting him to enlist, but I did so with a heavy heart, fearing he was throwing his future away.

When my son graduated from high school, his gown draped with ribbons for academic and music honors, I envied the proud parents all around me. The program in my hands reflected my feelings. Page after page extolled the college choices of hundreds of graduates--yet there wasn't a single acknowledgment of Ryan or those of his classmates who had chosen to enter military service. Joining the Marine Corps seemed a step backward for my intelligent and talented son.

Boy, was I ever wrong!

I began to glimpse the truth early in my son's military career. Ryan told me of a talk he'd had with his drill instructor during boot camp. The subject was respect. "When I speak," the DI said, "you stand at attention and say 'Yes, sir!' But I've only been tucking you in at night for about six weeks. How do you treat your mother, who's been doing this your whole life? Do you treat her with respect? Do you call her 'Ma'am'?"

I was quick to assure my son that calling me "Ma'am" was completely unnecessary, but a tiny quiet part of my brain began to glow. How long had it been since I had seen or heard public praise of motherhood? As editor of OrganizedHome.Com, I could count on one or two e-mails a week objecting to this site's focus on home life, and complaining "I thought we were past all that!" Yet the Marine Corps acted as if motherhood mattered, as if respect mattered, as if even a "good kid" like my son still had a lot to learn about honor and duty and character.

As the months passed, I saw more and more changes in my child. "I used to have to force myself to do my homework in high school," Ryan told me, "but now, I have self-discipline!" When he completed his military occupational specialty school, the first thing he did was visit me, his mother--before he saw his girlfriend, before he saw his former classmates. During that visit, I could see he was still the boy I knew, but he had also become a man, strong and confident, calm and balanced. He had grown inside far more than he had on the outside.

A few weeks later, I received a beautiful letter from the commandant of his training school. Ryan had graduated first in his class, the commandant wrote, adding that his achievement was "possible only because of the parental foundation you have lain; for this, we render the ultimate salute."

The Marine Corps was thanking me? Holding this letter, the last remnants of resistance to a son in military service crumbled away. The Yuppie parent capitulated and in her place stood a stand-tall, gung-ho Marine Mom.

In the past few days, this Marine Mom has had good reason to think about my child, my home and my country. Our future may soon lie in the hands of hundreds of thousands of young people just like my son, together with the military leaders who have taught and transmitted the values that have so enriched my child.

Corporal Ryan Swain, USMC, is just 20 years old.

But Corporal Ryan Swain, USMC, is a man of honor and courage. A man who is pledged to lay down his life for his home, his country. Together with young men and women from all parts of the United States of America, he is ready to defend us and our way of life.

As his mother, I can't help but think about the possibility that my child could be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

I am not afraid. But I do have something to say.

In the past few days, many have asked that I speak out as editor of OrganizedHome.Com. E-mails urge me to publicize blood drives and fundraisers and memorials. All are worthy efforts, all will make a difference--but none of these pleas have said quite what I want to say.

As a Marine Mom, I would ask, "Will we be worthy?" Will the weeks to come see a flurry of waving flags--but no real changes of heart? Will we dissipate our shock and grief and horror with symbolic acts, or will we use these emotions to fuel new commitment, new idealism, new devotion to the values that have built our nation?

What can we do for our country at this time of trial? Go home and invest ourselves in the lives of our children, our spouses, and our neighbors. Build strong homes and we will build a strong nation. Teach children the virtues of honor and discipline and self-sacrifice. Embrace family, friends and neighbors in a spirit of tolerance and respect, and seek out those who are alone. Be unashamed of standing for the values that my son and his fellow service members have pledged to defend with their lives.

What can we do for our country at this time of trial? Bring a new sense of dedication and service to our homes, schools, churches and communities. Give time and money and talents to make better lives for those around us. If a need is there, meet it. Support charities. Show, by our own sacrifice, that we value the sacrifices which may be asked of our service men and women in the coming months.

What can we do for our country at this time of trial? Prove, by civic participation, that our system of government remains strong and vibrant and relevant to a new century. Vote. Run for office. Speak out on issues. Communicate with our representatives. Fly the flag proudly, and exercise those freedoms of speech and religion that have been hard-bought throughout our history by men and women just like my son.

What can we do for our country at this time of trial? It is not the editor of OrganizedHome.Com who answers, but the mother of a Marine who speaks. We can be that nation to which my son has pledged his life's blood.

He believes. Can we do less?

Menu Planning: Save Time In The Kitchen

Posted by Cynthia Ewer on September 10, 2014

What's for dinner? It's the question of the hour!

Too many home managers look for answers in the supermarket at 5 p.m. Harried from the day's work and harassed by by hungry children, they rack their brains for an answer to the what's-for-dinner dilemma.

Three meals a day. Seven dinners a week. From supermarket to pantry, refrigerator to table, sink to cupboard, the kitchen routine can get old, old, old.

No wonder we hide our heads like ostriches from the plain and simple fact: into each day, one dinner must fall. What's the answer? A menu plan.

Menu planning doesn't have be complicated! Planning meals ahead requires a small investment of time, but can reap great rewards:

  • A menu plan saves money. Reducing trips to the supermarket, a menu plan reduces impulse spending. Using leftovers efficiently cuts food waste, while planned buying in bulk makes it easy to stockpile freezer meals at reduced prices.
  • A menu plan saves time. No dash to the neighbors for a missing ingredient, no frantic searches through the freezer for something, anything to thaw for dinner.
  • A menu plan improves nutrition. Without the daily dash to the supermarket, there's time to prepare side dishes and salads to complement the main dish, increasing the family's consumption of fruits and vegetables. Knowing what to serve each day--and having the ingredients already on hand--cuts back on the drive-through habit.

Follow these tips to put the power of menu and meal planning to work for you:

Dare to Do It

For too many of us, making a menu plan is something we intend to do . . . when we get around to it. Instead of seeing menu planning as an activity that adds to our quality of life, we dread sitting down to decide next Thursday's dinner. "I'll do that next week, when I'm more organized."

Wrong! Menu planning is the first line of defense in the fight to an organized kitchen, not the cherry on the icing on the cake.

Take the vow. "I, [state your name], hereby promise not to visit the supermarket again until I've made a menu plan!"

Start Small and Simple

Still muttering, "But I don't wanna ..."? Break into menu planning easily by starting small and simple.

Think, "next week." Seven little dinners, one trip to the supermarket. Sure, it's fun to think about indexing your recipe collection, entering the data in a database and crunching menus till the year 2015, but resist the urge.

Slow and steady builds menu planning skills and shows the benefits of the exercise. Elaborate hoo-rah becomes just another failed exercise in home management overkill.

Where to start? The food flyers from your local newspaper, or sales circulars from your markets' Web sites. You'll use the ads to get a feel for the week's sales and bargains. They'll be the basis for the week's selection of dinners.

This week in my hometown, two local chain supermarkets are offering whole fryers for the low, low price of 99 cents a pound. Clearly, this is the week for Ginger Chicken and Fajitas, not a time to dream about Beef Stew and Grilled Pork.

Menu Planning Basics

Okay, it's food ad day. Time to rough out a simple menu plan.

The goal is two-fold: shop efficiently to obtain food required for seven dinner meals, while minimizing expenditure, cooking, shopping and cleaning time. Here's the overview of the process:

  • Scan the food ads (newspaper or online) for specials and sales. Rough out a draft menu plan: seven dinner entrees that can be made from weekly specials, side dishes and salads.
  • Wander to pantry and refrigerator to check for any of last week's purchases that are languishing beneath wilting lettuce or hardening tortillas. Check for draft recipe ingredients. Review your shopping list and note needed items.
  • Ready, set, shop--but shop with an open mind. That 99-cent fryer won't look like such a bargain next to a marked-down mega-pack of boneless chicken breasts at $1.29 a pound. Be ready to substitute if you find a great deal.
  • Return from shopping. As you put away groceries, flesh out the menu plan. Match it up with the family's calendar, saving the oven roast for a lazy Sunday afternoon, the quick-fix pizza for soccer night.
  • Post the menu plan on the refrigerator door. Refer to it during the coming week as you prepare meals.
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That's it! The bare bones of menu planning.

You've made a draft plan, shopped from a list, retained flexibility in the marketplace, firmed up your plan and held yourself accountable.

The devil, however, is in the details! Use the pager links below for some points to ponder as you bring menu planning under control.

Build A Personal Shopping List

Planner companies, gift shops and generous desktop publishers all compete to produce cute little shopping lists for all persuasions and occasions. Bear-shaped shopping lists. Long skinny shopping lists. Shopping lists with winsome graphics, kittycats and teddy bears. Awwwwww.

[We even offer some, too, in the printables library .]

Only one problem: why aren't you using them?

Because they don't work, that's why. Teenaged sons play stuff-the-hoop with the empty cereal box and the trash can, but have you ever known one to neatly write "Cheerios" on the list? Blank shopping lists fit about as well as one-size-fits-all clothing.

Solution? Build a pre-printed family shopping list on the computer, listing all the foods and sundries your family consumes. Print 52 copies each year. Post them on the refrigerator. Boys who don't circle "cereal" on the list when they empty the box must eat hot cereal for the rest of the week.

Make your list work for you: organize it by aisle. Next shopping trip, grab a hand-out supermarket map as you leave. Construct your personal shopping list according to the order you shop the store. You'll speed your way out the door in record time!

Coast in the Calm of a Routine

Yes, there are some well-organized souls among us who don't make formal meal plans. Look close, and you'll discover that household meal service dances to a routine.

Sunday's a big dinner, and Tuesday gets the leftovers. Monday is burger night, and Wednesday sees spaghetti, year in and year out. Thursday's the day for a casserole, and Dad grills on Friday. Saturday night, it's take-out or pizza.

Create a routine around your menu planning. Sure, you can try new recipes--just don't let your enthusiasm for the cookbook trick you into doing so more than twice a month.

Find cues in the family schedule to help you plan a routine. At-home days with more free time can handle a fancy meal--or can signal soup, sandwiches and Cook's Night Off. The night you drive the sports team carpool is a great time to plan for pick-up sandwiches. Make the routine yours, and it will serve you well.

Consider Cook's Choice

Build flexibility into your plan and serve the aims of thrift with a weekly Cook's Choice Night.

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Traditionally held the night before grocery shopping, "Cook's Choice" is a menu planning catch-all designed to account for real life.

Use it to tie up loose ends before the next round of menu planning.

You can slide a neglected dinner into Cook's Choice, or chop up the contents of the refrigerator for a clean-out stir-fry.

Either way, you'll feel smug at your frugality and good planning.

Stay Flexible

Menu plans aren't written in stone. So you're dodging cramps on the "big" cooking day? Swap it out with Pizza Night and go to bed early with a cup of herb tea.

With meals planned and ingredients on hand, it's easy to juggle your menu plan when circumstances require. Staying flexible--while being prepared--brings calm to the kitchen!

Make It A Habit

Simple or not, a menu plan won't help you if you don't make one. Weekly menu planning is a good candidate for a new habit: an action on "auto-pilot" that you engage in without thinking. Need to learn how? Check out Habit, the Household Wonder Worker as a guide to building new habits for an organized home.

Get into the habit of planning menus before you shop, and you'll get hooked on the ease and convenience--an addiction of great value!

Recycle Menu Plans

After you've made menu plans for a few weeks, the beauty of the activity shines through: recycle them! Organized by main ingredient--chicken breasts, say, or chuck steak--completed menu plans make it even simpler to plan and shop for a week's meals.

Tuck completed menu plans in a file folder or page protector in your household notebook. Next time fryers are 99 cents a pound at the market, pull out the plan you made this week. Done!

Group Plans by Season

Over time, weekly menu plans will setting into two major groups: menus for warm weather, and fall/winter menus. Try to assemble six to eight plans for each menu "season"; most families do well with that much variety--and no more.

For instance, a great special on ground beef signals grilled hamburgers and burrito bar during warm-weather months; spaghetti or cabbage rolls during the cold season.

Include both variations in your menu stash for re-use next time you spot ground beef at a bargain price--whatever the weather!

Make the Move to Monthly Menu Plans

Once you've flexed your menu planning muscles with a few weekly plans, consider moving from weekly to monthly menu plans. It takes only a few more minutes to add the additional three weeks to your plan; doing so saves time all month long.

Longer-term menu plans are slightly more complex, relying as they do on freezer and pantry. But by reducing trips to the store--and maximizing use of food on hand--they bring superior savings and convenience.

Build Your Pantry Power

Longer-term menu planning brings new emphasis to household food storage areas: refrigerator, freezer and pantry.

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Brush up on your pantry power with our Beginner's Guide to Pantry Pride; keep tabs on stored foodstuffs with free printable pantry inventory and freezer inventory forms.

Maintaining an organized pantry offers many advantages for the menu planner. Keeping stocks of bought-on-sale staples lowers food bills and speeds meal preparation. Unexpected guests are no problem when you can turn to the pantry or freezer for hospitality supplies or a pre-prepared entree.

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